As our flight crossed the Caribbean, we anticipated our first glimpse of an island that relatively few Americans have visited in the past 55 years.
Thanks to my wifes alumni ties, we were traveling to Cuba on a seven-day visit.
As prescribed by U.S. statute, this was a people-to-people tour, with a packed itinerary. Distant Horizons of Long Beach, Calif., put the trip together.
Our group of 35 included business and professional people, academics, health care and media professionals. The graduating classes represented ranged from 1954 to 1995. One of our tour companions was the daughter of Cubans who left the island in 1962. Four of us were from the West Coast. Six, including my wife, had Kansas City connections.
A retired lawyer summed up our collective fascination with Cuba. For 30 years, Ive been telling clients why they cant go to Cuba. Thats why Ive been wanting to go.
By international air standards, Jose Marti Airport is small and rural. We disembarked from our American Airlines charter via a stairway. Cuban passport control officers sit behind a wall, in small cubicles with a latched door at the other end. If you are admitted, the door clicks open electronically. To enter and leave the country, we must show our passport, Cuban visa and Yale University People to People license.
Inside the cubicle, I was surprised to find a young woman in green uniform with two stars on her epaulettes. She wore a white blossom in her dark hair. That flower in the midst of the drab, uniformed bureaucracy was a metaphor of the youthful energy we discovered in Havana and rural Cuba.
We emerged from baggage claim to see a mass of Cubans behind barricades, waiting for relatives and friends, some of whom were bearing gifts. A man in front of me brought from Miami a 12-pack of Cutty Sark whisky.
The flow of wealth between Cubans in America and residents of Cuba is significant. We learned that remittances from Cuban-Americans to their relatives in Cuba total close to $2 billion annually. Cubas GDP is $60 billion.
Outside Jose Marti Airport, two prominent aspects of Havana were immediately apparent: iconography of the revolution and old cars.
My wifes knowledge of 50s autos runs deep. She delighted in picking out the Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths and Cadillacs of that decade as well as beauties from the 40s and even the 30s. They are in vivid blues, reds, pinks, two-tones. There are older Russian-made cars. And there are recent model Kias. The South Koreans have been here, but Japanese autos are noticeably absent.
On our half-hour drive from Jose Marti to downtown Havana, we sporadically pass billboards extolling the revolution. In flaking white paint, one wall bears the slogan Socialisme o Muerte (Socialism or death). The Alberto Korda image of Che Guevaras face is the most vivid icon. Asked why Ches face is used so much, our guide says: When you die at 39, you are always young.
Our first stop is Revolution Square. It does not have the gravitas of Red Square, but on May 1 the massive asphalt space fills with throngs celebrating the national holiday.
Architecture was the tours theme. Dr. Elihu Rubin of Yale would lead that segment. Mario Coyula, a Cuban architect and architectural historian would narrate a drive through Havana and walk us through what he considers one of the four most significant cemeteries in the world.
Over a week, our encounters would include a Cuban economist and a historian. We would visit young Cuban artists, watch dancers of the National Ballet of Cuba, visit an organic farm, an orchid farm and a tobacco plantation as well as an ecumenical seminary. We would also see relics of the 1959 revolution and meet the top U.S. diplomat. A few of us would see Ernest Hemingways home.
FRIDAY: We enter a 50s time warp music, music, music a world-class restoration opportunity a tobacco planter from central casting celestial voices in a seminary chapel bullet holes in the walls of the presidential palace and Batistas instruments of torture.